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The MTV edit killed off decent horror films, says a passionate Eli Roth, who hopes to reignite interest in good horror with his flesh-eating virus story, Cabin Fever. He wants Hollywood to stop re-labelling the genre as thrillers. Andrew L. Urban meets the wrathful Roth, and learns of the man’s own flesh eating experiences.

He’s wearing a grey ‘Porn Star’ T shirt, which only comes into focus when he makes a remark about the horror genre being “closest to pornography” in terms of its standing with the studios. Eli Roth, a good looking guy whose appearance is totally at odds with his filmmaking interests, is in Sydney to promote his film, Cabin Fever, in which a flesh eating virus starts demolishing a bunch of young holidaymakers. At the same time, Roth takes the opportunity to set about demolishing the bogey of horror movies and fearlessly denounces the marketing machine that, in a bid for legitimacy at the box office and with the voters of the Academy, has re-labelled ‘horror’ as ‘thriller’.

"that doesn’t work in horror films"

“Filmmakers forgot to make horror movies,” he says. “In the 80s, MTV editing took over movies. It worked in the action film, where there’s a cut every two seconds. Well guess what, that doesn’t work in horror films. Watch The Sixth Sense, and the movie moves at a snail’s pace, and it’s two and a half hours and you can’t take your eyes off it.

“But because horror is seen as the closest thing to pornography, the marketers call it [The Sixth Sense] a ‘supernatural thriller’; well, that’s one of the scariest moves I’ve ever seen. It’s a kid seeing ghosts . . . it’s a f***ing horror movie!”

Roth is talking fast now, intense about the subject, and clearly irritated with the way the movie world has debased his favourite genre.

“It’s a slap in the face that they call it a supernatural thriller. If The Exorcist were released today, they’d call it a ‘theological thriller’. There have been other horror movies made, like The Ring, like The Others – only you’re not allowed to call them horror films. The studios have conditioned you to use the labels they want to use … Look at the ‘thriller’, Signs, which is the exact same structure as the classic horror film, The Night Of The Living Dead. The same movie updated 30 years later, only it’s a ‘thriller’!” Roth is thumping his fist into his palm for emphasis.

“Look at The Ring; it makes $100 million dollars, and it’s a ‘thriller’. Why? Because they want to win Oscars and they think that calling it a horror movie is a dirty word. We need directors like Danny Boyle to say, ‘yes, 28 Days Later is a horror movie’ instead of saying it’s a thriller. Because the last third of that movie Dawn of The Dead. So much of that film is Day of the Driffids and Dawn of the Dead that for the studio to say ‘come see our new thriller’ is like spitting in our face.

“Don’t insult my intelligence trying to tell me that’s a thriller!”

"Let’s raise the standards"

Having unleashed this tirade, I can’t get a word in. He’s steaming. “The Vanishing is a great thriller; The Fourth Man is a great thriller, Vertigo, Rear Window, they’re thrillers. Psycho was a horror film. Look at the structures and the conventions …but it’s the marketing people trying to sell a product, and I understand why they do it. And if you look at the horror films of the 80s, filmmakers f***ed up and they stopped making good movies. They stopped taking it seriously. So I completely understand why Danny Boyle wouldn’t want to say ‘I made a horror film’ because when I told people I’d made a horror film, they said, ‘oh, you mean a straight to video B movie … have you always wanted to make B movies?’ And it’s so insulting; you can’t have a horror film [that’s any good]. And people go, ‘Wow, there’s actually good acting in your film.’ But why shouldn’t there be? That should be expected; people shouldn’t be surprised when they see good acting in a horror movie. Let’s raise the standards.”

As he draws breath I quickly jump in, asking whether the members of the Academy would ever …”never …it’ll take ages. That’s the whole thing; Silence Of The Lambs changed everything. It swept the Oscars, and The Sixth Sense got nominated. For Oscar voters if it’s a horror film there’s no artistic merit to it, no social value. But if it’s a thriller, it’s Hitchcockian. It has class…” Ironically enough, though, Hitchcock never won an Oscar.

“Idiots make horror films; we’re intelligent, we make thrillers,” he mimics the mavens.

The only way this will ever change, says Roth (should be spelt Wrath I’m thinking at this moment) “if the fans respond on opening weekend to movies like Cabin Fever. They have to come out and support these films in the theatres. If there’s an R rated violent horror movie and fans come out and support it in the theatres [not just on video], then they’ll be back. People in Hollywood say horror’s dead: horror’s not dead, shitty movies are dead.”

For Roth, a shitty horror movie is one in which you notice an edit or a camera move and “you’re taken out of the movie . . . or if you notice the score, you’re out of the movie. You should be in the movie, you should feel all these things and appreciate these things but don’t be made conscious of them. And so many directors, so many horror directors, in movies like Thir13en Ghosts, these directors are using crappy, unnecessary, over-stylised camerawork to make up for the fact there’s no script, they don’t know how to tell a story and they don’t have confidence in their material.”

Roth has been a fan of horror movie fan since he was 6. His family was staying in Florida, with access to cable tv, which was a big deal at the time. Roth saw The Killer Bees was on, and he was keen to see it. But his dad says, hey tehre’s something even better, The Exorcist. His mum was reluctant, but his dad, a psychoanalyst, was all for it. “It’ll be fine, Cora,” he told his wife. 

"the scariest thing I’d ever seen"

Roth recalls watching – with his two brothers - semi-bored for the first hour, when the mood was being set but not much was happening. “Then … it was amazing, it traumatised me but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. It destroyed me. My brothers were under the covers…I didn’t sleep for about two years after that.”

Then he started looking at newspaper ads for movies like Dawn Of The Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gates of Hell….”You knew that once they left the theatre, you’re never going to see them. They were never going to come to television! There was no video and there was very little cable…So when I was 8 I begged my parents to take me to see Alien, and I loved it. I remember sitting there looking at the credits and saying to my dad, ‘I want to be a producer.’ He said the producer has to come up with all the money. So I said what does the director do. He said the director gets to spend the money. So I said I want to be a director.”

After the movie, Roth “threw up everywhere. Then when The Exorcist came up on cable again, I threw up. Every time I saw a horror movie, I threw up. I went to see Dracula, with Frank Langella, and I puked everywhere. Then Invasion Of The Body Snatchers … puked.”

His parents cottoned on and said no more horror movies. “But I had to see Outland, and when the heads start exploding, my family sort of leans over to look at me . . . and wham, I had to run out of the theatre, projectile vomiting over rows of people, it was awful. I kept running, it was horrible. Then my parents really put their foot down; that’s it, no more! Enough!”

It wasn’t that he was scared now, it was nerves that he would puke. The turning point came with Raiders Of The Lost Ark. “I said I have to see it, but my parents said no, people’s faces melt in Raiders…And when I finally convinced them, I came out of the film and didn’t puke. I was cured.”

He could now safely go and see films like Basket Case and Caligula. He began reading about special effects as well as seeing them. He acquired a keen love of magic and sees a link between it and horror films. At his bar mitzvah he got sawed in half by a chainsaw. “I love magic tricks, and for me horror movies are the ultimate magic trick. You can watch someone get decapitated, and you know it’s not real, but you ask how the hell did they do that? It’s fascinating and terrifying.”

"a flesh eating virus"

With Cabin Fever, Roth has taken a premise that comes from his own strange experience with a flesh eating virus, which he somehow acquired in Iceland when he was 19. “I started shaving and saw my skin peeling off…” But that was only one of several experiences that drove his interest in a horror film where the ‘creature’ is invisible, inside the body. At age 12 he got a rare virus in his hip (“it attacks about one in a million kids”) that paralysed him for six weeks. After cable tv finished at 2 am, he would read Fangoria magazine; “but I felt so isolated…”

At 17 he was visiting Russia and got giardia from some milk, a parasite that burned through him for five months. “And I felt there were these things inside me, eating me…”

At 22, he woke one morning with his legs in great pain, and throwing off the sheets he was horrified to see his skin in fissures, with bloody cracks and sores. It was the first attack of psoriasis. 

“It all built up this feeling in me that we’re not at the top of the food chain; bacteria or a virus will get us all one day. That’s what I love about the thing in the movie; there’s this thing inside you, and you can’t tell if you have it or not. And you can’t tell if other people have it or not. I love that. And then you’re with your friend and you have to kill your friend. But you’re not killing your friend, you’re killing the host . . . but at the last minute you can’t do it, but then the thing’ll come out…. I love that!”

Published December 4, 2003

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